What makes a successful brand today? As we have learned from the explosion of basics behemoth, Uniqlo to the ‘radical’ transparent start-ups, Everlane, it helps to found a brand with a disruptive blueprint. What worked 20, 30, 50 years ago simply won’t work now, in any industry. Arguably the latest and greatest name out there to shake up the apparel world is Pangaia.

Pangaia was founded in 2018 not as a clothing brand, but a ‘material science company’, described by CMO, Maria Srivastava and and CIO, Amanda J. Parkes as “a large collective made up of scientists, engineers, artists, designers, thinkers.” (source: L’Official)

The company are becoming a sustainable clothing powerhouse; celebrities and apparel aficionados have flocked to rep the brands nature toned tracksuits and FLWRDWN™ jackets, propelling the material science company into a household name. 

Pangaia is re-writing the mainstream rules of sustainable innovation in their own, playful handwriting and with the recent launch of Pangaia’s highly anticipated denim line, we sat down with denim friend and ex Levi’s SVP Jonathan Cheung to find out more.

Pangaia's nettle denim collection

As someone who’s come from Levi’s, arguably the biggest denim brand on the planet, how has your experience been at Pangaia?

Not even close to arguably 🙂 Levi’s is the best school too. I lost my wedding ring years ago – it most likely got eaten by our robot vacuum cleaner – but I still feel the ring on my finger, like a part of me that will always be there. Levi’s is like that. I’ll be forever grateful for that experience.

Pangaia’s approach is totally different to most brands. Have you seen that Steve Jobs video where he says he learnt a valuable lesson in ‘if you do the right things on the top line, the bottom line will follow’? Meaning if you have the right strategy, the right people and the right culture, you’ll do the right products, the right marketing and the financial results will follow. It’s a great piece of wisdom, and I see it very much an intrinsic part of how Pangaia is set up, being values and mission driven first and everything else comes after. Pangaia truly is a materials science company on a mission to design a better future by finding, adopting and scaling better materials and technologies. That is for real, and it makes all the difference when compared to most businesses who start with the question, ‘how do I sell more stuff?’. Everyone at Pangaia just wants to discover and develop the best materials and work with the best people. The fundamental base of the company is in innovation, and the superpower is coupling the innovation with storytelling and taste. And back to Steve Jobs again, “ultimately, it comes down to taste”.

When did Pangaia decide to embark on denim? And were there any specific ideas straight from the start that you were set on incorporating in the collection?

We started talking about it in Spring 2020. Initially it wasn’t about any specific styles, but more of a long term vision for denim and sustainability in general. It was pretty far-reaching, and included several stages of material development. The specific ideas were materials and overall vision rather than styles per se. And then we spent quite a bit of time assembling the team and supply chain in place before any sketches started. Actual pen-to-paper sketches started in the summer of 2020, so it’s taken over a year to go live. 

"We weren’t actually sure that we’d get a fabric that was wearable or affordable, but I remember asking Alberto in a kinda ’tell-me-straight-no-bullshit’ way, ‘what do you really think of the fabric” and he replied that it was one of the most beautiful fabrics Candiani had ever made."

— Jonathan Cheung

What led you to the Himalayan nettle and subsequent partnership with the mill Candiani? When and how did that process evolve? 

Pangaia had been researching Himalayan Nettle before I joined the project, so when we had our first meeting, and I was asking what interesting ingredients they had in the kitchen, they said, ‘Himalayan Nettle’ and they had me at those two words. It’s like Mushroom Leather or Spider Silk – you can’t help but to be instantly hooked in by those kinds of materials. I guess Alberto Candiani feels the same way, because we were lucky that he personally got involved in developing the denim. 

There were some constraints we knew from the start – like we could only use shuttle looms for weaving, because they are slower and the weft is under less tension. The nettle probably breaks the high speed projectile looms. There were a few things that I asked for: Left hand twill, to counterbalance the toughness of the nettle, (and just to be different), a purple-line selvedge, the weight to come in at 13oz and for the fabric to marble like Kobe beef after a lot of wear.  For the rest, Alberto knows this stuff better than anyone. We weren’t actually sure that we’d get a fabric that was wearable or affordable, but I remember asking Alberto in a kinda ’tell-me-straight-no-bullshit’ way, ‘what do you really think of the fabric” and he replied that it was one of the most beautiful fabrics Candiani had ever made. Woah, drop the mic right there. I’ve gotta say, it’s really nice. Much nicer in the flesh than in photos. Grazie Alberto. (We’re not worthy, deep bowing ensues). 

A close up of the nettle denim jacket and process sketches

And did you run into any struggles within the supply chain process while developing a new sustainable product?

Yeah, quite a few. The whole supply chain was set up from scratch. It’s like learning to swim, we swallowed a bunch of seawater in the process. One lesson we learnt is that Himalayan Nettle denim elongates and your need to give it 48 hours to relax. Another, obvious-only-afterwards, is that it’s better if you reverse the direction of sewing when making left hand jeans. Oh, and we haven’t even gotten to doing all this development during Covid lockdowns. Shout out to Rajesh Gupta, our polymath secret weapon, and to Emanuela & Tammy. It takes a lot of teamwork and persistence, and luckily, Pangaia seems to have a boundless appetite for a challenge. 

After fabric development and during manufacturing, what were the decisions you made to make this line as holistically sustainable as possible pertaining to the construction, laundry and end of life? 

The aim was to design these pieces to be worn a lot and last a long, long time. One thing that doesn’t get talked about a lot in terms of sustainability is beauty. The aim was to make beautiful, desirable jeans that people love and treasure. Sometimes simple beauty gets overlooked and you see things like ’no-waste’ designs that look like contrived sacks with sleeves and no-one wants to wear them. 

So along with the ‘style durability’ comes the intrinsic durability of the ingredients. The fabric is strong, the construction is time-tested. They have been designed to be recycled – the all-cellulose fabric and sewing thread makes it perfect for recycling into cellulosics like Infinited Fiber and RenewCell. And the stainless steel buttons can also be recycled. However, we envision them to be worn for years, and hopefully decades, so that any recycling will be done by our grandchildren. 

Regarding the laundry: The jeans come pre-washed, which softens the denim and makes it less brittle than if you wear ‘raw’, rigid jeans. It definitely reduces the amount of crotch blow-outs that you get when wearing jeans that have never been washed. I don’t rule out producing unwashed, rigid jeans for the hardcore one day, but for the launch we went with two simple washes. A rinse and a minimal enzyme wash for the mid-colour. No stones, no laser. Again, that’s to reduce the amount of wear-and-tear from the factory, and it’s much more authentic when jeans get whiskers from actual use, rather than factory distressed. 

The high-rise women's fit

"If we think about gender as a spectrum, then Men and Women are at the ends of the spectrum so we decided to put both sizes on the jeans, like showing North & South on a map - it gives context, and people can navigate to their size preference accordingly."

- Jonathan Cheung

With all that in mind, how do you start and maintain educational communication with your consumers about your products, and product consumption in general? 

I always think it’s a good discipline as a designer to put every idea through a ‘story-first, product after’ filter. If you can write the story and make it compelling, then it’s a good bullshit test of a product being interesting or not. So, right at the beginning, I wrote a ‘why denim’ essay to share to my colleagues at Pangaia. They built on that and added much more. Innovation and storytelling is a powerful, value generating thing. 

Tell us about your ‘Pansex’ approach to denim design

Pansex feels more ‘every gender’ and inclusive rather than neutral or ‘uni’. Right at the beginning of this project, I was thinking about what would be the best things for Pangaia to launch denim with. We wanted keep it simple and minimal, so of course that meant doing a pair of straight-leg jeans and a jacket and the most minimal way to do that was to make them ‘pansex’. Making the jacket gender inclusive is simple. For the jeans, you know as well as anyone Amy – most of the vintage  jeans you wear and most of the 90’s jeans you see on women are almost always originally mens jeans. So that was the starting point. Vintage jeans.

You & I have talked about the changing awareness and values around gender fluidity for years. If we think about gender as a spectrum, then Men and Women are at the ends of the spectrum so we decided to put both sizes on the jeans is like showing North & South on a map – it gives context, and people can navigate to their size preference accordingly. 

So the jeans and the jacket have dual gender size labels. For example, the jacket is labeled Men’s size M and Women’s size L at the same time. On the Pansex jeans, the same pair is labeled a Men’s 32 and Women’s 30. This feels better than inventing a new sizing system – remember the Esperanto language? It was designed to create a universal second language – except nobody speaks it.

The pansex straight leg jean
The pansex straight leg jean

So…. the same pair of jeans is both a Mens 32 and Womens 30? 

Yes. The sizing is based on what someone would normally buy when they go shopping for jeans. This is standard industry practice. For example let’s say a woman buys size 27 high-waisted jeans – when she shops for low rise jeans that sit on her hips, she’s still shopping for a size 27. If you measured the waistband of both jeans, the actual measurements would be very different, but the size labelling remains the same. 

What were the challenges you faced when developing a gender neutral jean?

The actual fit wasn’t too challenging – like we just discussed, women have been wearing vintage mens jeans forever. And I’ve had a bit of practice developing jeans 🙂  The challenge is as much around the expectation. There’s a certain attitude, a cool boyishness, that you get when women wear mens jeans.  They are never going to fit perfectly flat and clean around the front crotch area. There will always be some creases there. It’s an intrinsic part of what makes them cool. However, we know not everyone wants that boyish look, we also made a high-rise straight leg that was specifically developed for women – It’s a curvier, disco-queen, hip hugging type of high rise.  

Bella Hadid wearing vintage
Kendall Jenner wearing vintage

Give us a break-down of the jacket design.

For the jacket’s design language, you can roughly think of it as a simplified Type II front – with the big, practical chest pockets but without the front pleats – spliced with a Type III back with the V shaped seams and the later-era hand pockets and inside stash pockets. There’s actually a lot more subtle differences, but that’s a shorthand way to picture it. The fit is a boxier version of a 90’s vintage trucker jacket. Pretty much all jeans can trace their DNA back to Levi’s, and in my case, the lineage is direct so I wanted to respect my lineage and not do the obvious Type III homage. Instead this is the jacket I would have designed if there was ever a Type IV. 

And the straight leg jean?

The Pansex straight leg jeans naturally have some vintage influence, as the pattern is a side grade (technical term for straight outseam) – but the real denim nerds will see the differences, from the belt loops to the minimalist left-sided stash pocket and the bigger back pockets. I love the single-colour multi-stitches-per-inch sewing thread language.  It’s stuff only nerds like us will notice, but it adds up to the authenticity of the jeans. Other details are completely invisible – like insisting on 100% lyocell sewing thread and choosing cutlery-grade stainless steel buttons. 

And the branding?

It’s pretty minimal. The buttons say Pangaia and there’s the text block print which is part of the brand identity, as well as being the ingredient list. Because we developed a left hand twill, it inspired the decision to print the text on the wearer’s left side, rather than the traditional right side where a patch would be. 

High-rise, women's nettle jeans in rinse wash
Nettle Denim Jacket in mid-wash

This being a sustainable-centric denim line for a sustainably-focussed company, what, in your opinion, is the price consumers should expect to pay for sustainable denim today?

Where you make it, and the quantity you make are the biggest levers in terms of price. Pangaia is just starting out on this. It’s all made in Europe and the quantities are relatively tiny. It’s not cheap, and the price of organic cotton has skyrocketed due to demand. Whether you’re a new company like Pangaia or a giant brand, it’s going to cost a little more in your wallet but cost less in terms of impact it will make for the generations that come after us.  The real price is cost-per wear, so take whatever the cost is and divide it by the number of times you’ll wear it. The number of wears for these pieces should be counted in years and decades. I’m really looking forward to seeing them with a year or two of hard wear on them.

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Trend forecaster, denim designer, industry journalist and author of Denim Dudes.

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